Urbanization, Health and Resilience

“People from all walks of life … must recognize the crucial role design can play in coping with the complexities and challenges of the future.” ~ Richard Farson, Ph.D.

Designing to Transform our WORLD

The peoples of our world are gradually coming to understand that many of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century— urbanization of the planet, the well-being of society, the resiliency of our communities—are fundamentally matters of design. Increasingly, governments, industry, and the general public are beginning to appreciate that the creativity, training, and experience of architects and designers are necessary if we are to realize the dream of healthy, productive, safe, sustainable, and livable communities.

First, Urbanization:
Today, more than half the world’s inhabitants live in urban areas. The pressing cultural and environmental concerns of

Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA
Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA

urbanization demand new levels of accountability as we measure ecological performance, energy use, density relationships, and dwindling resources.

Quick policy or technological fixes—a dam here, a regulation there—may provide temporary relief, but typically lead to larger problems. The paradigms of urbanism desperately need recalibration to meet today’s and tomorrow’s global challenges. Who is best trained and equipped to inform and lead the decision-making process that will bring about new thinking about the fair and sustainable allocation of resources? Architects and designers.

Second, Health:
An issue that demands our leadership is health. When we think of health, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the medical industry and treating illnesses when people are unwell. What should be uppermost in our minds is not the treatment of illness, but how to keep people WELL.

Whether dense or dispersed, there is a growing appreciation for the value of planning and designing cities to support physical activity, sunlight, clean air, the use of sustainable and safe building materials, access to healthy foods, safety, and social connectedness. This is a transformational moment for understanding and addressing the health consequences of our cities, and for architects to take the lead to put knowledge, measurement, and innovation at the disposal of elected officials and community leaders. We can and must be the agents for a quality of collaboration among all the affected parties, especially citizens, that shapes environments that support human wellbeing and environmental health.

And third, Resilience:
Becoming a globally urban society intersects with a looming crisis of 21st-century life—global climate change. This may be the greatest challenge of all, and it cries out for the leadership of designers of all disciplines. While some still question that human activity is (for the first time in history) having an impact on global weather, what is beyond argument is that more and more of us are in harm’s way. This affects us with growing frequency in Virginia.

“Resiliency”—which I define as structures that can resist all types of destructive events and continue to provide their primary functions—is a major challenge to the design professions—and an opportunity to demonstrate the value of design. Structures so designed have the ability to reduce the magnitude and/or duration of disruptive events by anticipating, absorbing, adapting to, and recovering rapidly from natural and human-caused disasters. Stated more simply, resilience can be defined as the ability to bounce back after a disturbance or interruption. However, resiliency does not and should not be equated with a fortress mentality; instead, it can be a way of thinking that links our work intimately with site and climate.

Public-opinion polls, newspaper articles about local issues and politics, and anecdotal evidence all show that communities around the world are concerned about livability issues. Health, security, transportation, safety, schools, sustainability, resiliency, economic development, and productivity all contribute to quality of life. All are influenced (in some way) for better – and, for worse – by the way we shape the built environment.

My dear friend, the late Richard Farson, PhD., recognized author and psychologist I quoted above, believed that we are in the midst of an emerging “Design Century.” In Dr. Farson’s words, “The stakes are high. The next few decades will determine the survival of our civilization. We will either design our way out of this crisis, or we won’t make it. We will succeed only if design thinking becomes the organizing discipline of the future!”

Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA
Executive Vice President
AIA Virginia